There was a time, not too long ago, when a new, potentially polluting operation could move into a low-income area and set up shop with nary a peep from the residents.

Maybe that‘s what Sunlaw Energy Partners thought when it applied in August to build a major power plant in the city of South Gate. But last week, residents made it clear that, at least in their city, those days are over.

On Wednesday evening, hundreds of residents of South Gate, as well as Downey, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Lynwood and other neighboring cities in heavily industrialized Southeast L.A., packed into the South Gate High School cafeteria to voice their concerns about the plant.

”We already have too much pollution here,“ said Norma Martinez, a resident of Downey whose mother lives in South Gate. ”What is this going to do to our health? We’re talking about the future of our families.“

Martinez and others worried about the pollution that would be created by the 550-megawatt, natural-gas-burning plant, called Nueva Azalea. Sunlaw says the plant will use new technology to significantly cut down on emissions of nitrogen oxide, one of the main components of smog. But the plant will also create PM10, or particulate matter, those tiny particles of soot that can get trapped in the lungs and contribute to respiratory illness.

”I have asthma and I take a lot of medicine,“ said Maria Cabrera, a South Gate resident. ”Sometimes, when there‘s a lot of pollution, even when I take my medicine, I don’t feel well, and if I don‘t feel well, I may die.“

The differences between this gathering and the dozen or so that have been held in South Gate by the California Energy Commission in recent months were marked. The entire meeting was conducted in Spanish — 80 percent of South Gate residents are Latino, the vast majority from Mexico. Simultaneous English translation was available on headsets. There were urns of coffee and trays of pan dulce — sweet Mexican bread that lent to the evening’s convivial air.

Sunlaw and the Energy Commission were noticeably absent; they weren‘t invited. In their stead were life-size cardboard cutouts at the front of the room facing the audience, hands positioned to indicate ”see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.“

This event — sponsored by the nonprofit Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), which opposes the project — was not meant to be an impartial hearing. It was meant to provide an opportunity for residents to express their concerns, unfettered and unintimidated, more pep rally than fact-finding mission.

”Who is going to benefit from this plant?“ CBE scientist Bahram Fazeli asked the crowd. ”Who are the biggest consumers of electricity? They are the ones who are going to benefit. Everybody should have their fair share of pollution. Southeast L.A. already has more than its share.“

Studies by various government and nonprofit agencies, including the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) and CBE, have shown that Southeast L.A. is one of the most polluted parts of Los Angeles.

The Nueva Azalea project is under consideration at a time when California’s energy reserves are critically low. The application was supposed to be on a 12-month schedule, which would have meant a decision in August 2001. But the staff of the Energy Commission has asked for an extension. Meanwhile, last week, Barry Wallerstein, the AQMD‘s executive director, sent a letter to the Energy Commission praising the project for its relatively low emissions and asking that the permit process be speeded up to help ease the energy crunch.

Nueva Azalea is one of more than two dozen power-plant applications under consideration throughout the state. In the 25-year history of the state Energy Commission, only once has a power-plant application been denied. That application was later re-submitted and accepted.

Organizers at Communities for a Better Environment acknowledge that theirs is an uphill fight, but they were encouraged by the turnout at the Wednesday-night meeting. ”Obviously there is a lot of concern about this plant,“ Fazeli said. ”That is going to have to be taken into account.“

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